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How to Improve Concentration and Focus: 7 Tips

by Jeff Cobb

Magnifiying glass over word Focus

I’ve written about a range of habits related to learning, but one I have not yet covered is concentration – perhaps because I find it among the hardest of habits to truly master.

I’m as apt as anybody to have my working memory hijacked by the temptations of multi-tasking,

….or simply to become distracted by the shiny new learning objects that I encounter on a daily basis,

…or to start writing about one thing and find myself wandering to other topics as new thoughts occur to me,

…or….uh, right – concentration. Here are some of the approaches to it that I find helpful:

1. Be conscious and intentional

I keep coming back to “consciousness” as the cornerstone of most effective learning habits. Before you are likely to be successful at concentrating you have to make a clear, conscious decision to focus your attention. Sounds simple enough, but more often than not we move from one experience to the next without any real consciousness, and certainly without a decision to concentrate.

2. Set clear goals – and victories

I’ve lamented my own lack of goal setting before. To concentrate effectively, it really helps to have specific outcomes in mind.  Break down longer term goals – like mastering a new language – into smaller chunks that are achievable in short bursts of concentration – like memorizing how an irregular verb is conjugated.

3. Be consistent

A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but a wise consistency is often essential to enlarging the mind. Great athletes, musicians, writers, and others who excel in their chosen field nearly always have set times and places for concentrated thinking and practice. Consistency of environment helps to normalize distractions and consistency of time helps establish a pattern and rhythm to support concentration. Pick a limited range of places where and times when you do your most focused learning. You can and should vary these over time to avoid falling into rote learning habits, but don’t be too fast or erratic in making changes.

4. Avoid or remove distractions

Part of what sparked me to write about concentration this week is the ongoing debate about the impact of the Internet on our brains. (See, for example, Pinker and Carr on this.)  I’m still undecided about the deeper, longer term impact, but I don’t have much doubt about the ability of the Internet – and countless other modern wonders – to distract us on a minute-to-minute basis and interfere with concentration. You may be able to train your mind to block out such distractions, but for me, the easiest path has always been simply to avoid cognitive overload by turning off the e-mail, the browser, the phone, the iPod, the [add your own distraction here], etc..

5. Set time limits and allow for breaks

Similar to how the body has limits for focused physical activity and needs recovery time from exercise, the mind benefits from periodic short breaks during periods of concentration as well as longer breaks between periods of concentration to help consolidate learning. During shorter breaks, it is better not to turn to other tasks, but to truly take a break and let the mind rest. (For a scientific perspective on this – including a helpful video abstract – see a recent article on “awake rest” in Neuron.). Longer breaks should include essential activities like getting sufficient sleep at night.

6. Take care of mind and body

Speaking of sleep – I’ve written before about the important role it plays in memory. And having sufficient sleep is also likely to positively impact your attitude towards concentrating and ability to concentrate in the first place. Likewise, a balanced diet and plenty of aerobic exercise are very important factors in promoting healthy brain activity and memory. Really, being well rested, well fed, and in good physical shape is the foundation for being able to concentrate well.

7. Practice

Finally, few of us are able to will ourselves to concentrate and become effective at it over night. I wrote recently about the keys to deliberate practice and those keys apply here as much as they do anywhere else. Yes, that’s right – you have to focus and concentrate in order to learn to focus and concentrate. Here are a few simple techniques for improving concentration that might help you in your practice. I’m also a fan of breathing exercises as a way to help clear the mind and focus attention.

So, those are my tips. Got any you think should be added to the list?

Jeff

posted on June 17, 2010

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Madeleine Kolb June 21, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Jeff, These are excellent tips for concentrating. I too struggle with distraction, and I’m pretty good at rationalizing why something which distracts me is somehow pertinent to what I should be concentrating on.

I made an interesting observation about multitasking and distraction several weeks ago while I was on a webinar with a number of others. I found that the chat text was so distracting that I had trouble focusing on the speaker. So I stuck post-it notes on my monitor and concentrated deeply on the speaker. I got so much more out of what he was saying than I would have otherwise. This is something I’ll try again.

Jeff Cobb June 26, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Hi Madeleine – Thanks for commenting, and apologies for a belated response (guess I need to focus a bit more on the blog!). I definitely struggle with “rationalizing” – seems like you can make pretty much anything relevant if you try hard enough, but whenever I manage to maintain discipline I almost always find that “less is more.” RE: Webinars – I wonder how many people do something similar to what you describe – or the opposite, tune out the presenter and just focus on side conversations – or other things. I’m betting there is a lot of distractedness that accompanies the average Webinar. – Jeff

kashya s khatri July 17, 2011 at 9:10 am

ya this seems quite helpful but i still have a problem in concentrating in my
studies……usually while i think of studying i start to get sleepy….. and think about useless things and finally i refuse my work this really bothers and harms my studies ,so please please help and reply for any solution.

kalyani neta September 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm

it’s awesome.these tips r really very helpful to me.there is a drastic change in my concentration.thank u so much for suggesting excellent tips.thank u.

Rania November 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm

I agree with Kalyani! Superb suggestions!

My greatest challenges were studying and paying attention in class. I just couldn’t seem to pay attention for extended period. Here are a few things I’ve done…
- Reduced the multitasking!
- Set better objectives and goals
- Slept a bit earlier (helps to get 6-8 hours vs 5) if you’re sleep deprived, you will NOT produce good results!..
- I’ve also been taking a cocoa and green tea supplement called vavalert, which I think has helped me withstand longer hours of focus. If you are at all curious, it’s http://www.vavalertusa.com (I don’t think it’s available in many stores.. yet).

I’m sure you each have your own rituals but this is mine :)

Aaron December 21, 2011 at 2:04 am

Read books – ink on paper

The most powerful focus trainer…

With the computers today our mind is trained to have low focus ability because of all the distractions.

rahul jain March 7, 2012 at 3:40 am

hiiiii……. This is rahul. i am so happy to get a wonderful tipes for devloped concentrate power and i am useing this all tipes in my daily life and i am realy feeling more changes in my life as before thanks………………..

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